I re-watched this Civil War drama on TCM recently; it’s one of my fave (and most-watched) films! The music is used very well; each scene is enhanced by it, incl. the battles. It was originally released in the Summer of 1989; Fathom Events will be having its 30th anniversary screening later this year in select cities/theaters. Kevin Jarre (a white man) was inspired to write the screenplay when he saw monument to Shaw on Boston Common (shown in the closing credits). Jarre’s inspiration came from two books: (1) One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment (1989) by Peter Burchard, a novel that itself was based on letters written by Shaw and (2) Lay This Laurel (1973), a photographic tribute to the Civil War sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens with text by American writer/arts patron Lincoln Kirstein. Jarre has a brief (yet notable) cameo as the white Union soldier who shouts “Give ’em hell, 54!”
Edward Zwick was initially apprehensive about how his African-American cast would feel about this telling of a crucial part of their history by a young Jewish director. To his delight and relief, he found his cast to be very affable and good-humored towards him, some of them even grateful that he was brave enough to tackle such an important subject. Zwick and Denzel Washington (here in his breakout role) would continue to work together on other (successful) movies. The director later commented (during a promo tour for Courage Under Fire) that “Denzel is always doing something interesting. I don’t want to take the camera off him.”
Several of the extracts from Shaw’s supposed letters to his mother (in voice-over narration) were taken from Army Life in a Black Regiment, an 1870 book by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who commanded the 1st South Carolina Regiment). The historical figures in this movie are: 1) Francis George Shaw, Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw, and Ellen Shaw (direct relatives of Robert Gould Shaw), 2) John Albion Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts, 3) Charles Garrison Harker and George Crockett Strong, Union generals, 4) Charlotte Forten Grimké, an antislavery activist, 5) James Montgomery, Union colonel, and (6) Frederick Douglas, former slave turned abolitionist, speaker/activist.
“Any negro taken in arms against the Confederacy will immediately be returned to a state of slavery. Any negro taken in Federal uniform will be summarily put to death. Any white officer taken in command of negro troops shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection and shall likewise be put to death.” Full discharges will be granted in the morning to all those who apply. Dismissed. -Shaw reads a proclamation sent from the Confederate Congress
Zwick explained that, for the flogging scene of Trip (Washington in his Best Supporting Actor Oscar winning role), the actor was lashed at full contact, with a special whip, that would not cut his back, but still stung. For the final take, Zwick hesitated calling “Cut!” to signal the flogging to stop, and the result was Washington’s spontaneous tear down his cheek. The deep scars on Trip’s back were Washington’s idea; they showed how Trip was already a survivor of many lashings (being a runaway slave w/ a willful nature).
That Col. Shaw- he a hard man! -Jupiter Sharts comments, tired after a tough day of drills
He’s a boy. A scared white boy. -Trip quickly retorts with disgust
At first, the regiment is only given manual labor; this was a fact w/ the “colored” soldiers. They were also given less pay; in real life, Shaw was the one who protested this matter. As my A.P. American Government teacher commented, Shaw used his class privilege (incl. his sense of entitlement and rank) to get what is needed for his men (shoes, uniforms, and rifles); we see this in the scene in the Quartermaster’s office. Shaw is surprised at how quickly his men learn (even under their tough, racist Irish drill sergeant). Broderick’s small, youthful face and micro-expressions (when Shaw was uncertain, nervous, or looked in over his head) were played so well. Andre Braugher (currently on the comedy series Brooklyn Nine-Nine) has perhaps the most interesting role; Thomas is an educated, free man who has never before had to fight for his survival. Trip takes an instant disliking to Thomas; they come from such different backgrounds, though both are young black men yearning to prove their worth. Thomas was partly based on a successful freedman who owned a shop in Boston.
I ain’t fightin’ this war for you, sir. -Trip quietly explains to Shaw (after being praised for his skill in battle)
Unfortunately, most of Elwes’ scenes were cut from the film. He and Broderick did not get along, according to Zwick; I think they also had differing acting styles and personalities. Many scenes/subplots were cut from both the theatrical version and DVD; these include Shaw and Forbes attending school together and fencing one another. Nearly all of the scenes of veteran actress Jane Alexander (Shaw’s mother) were cut. Freeman (who brings gravitas to this film, being older and more experienced than his co-stars) did his own stunts, as Zwick asked of all his actors. He used his own experience (Air Force) to inform how relationships would be formed in the unit.
At the end of the film, Shaw is thrown into the mass grave with the black soldiers. Normally, officers were given formal burials, but the Confederacy had such contempt for the black regiment, that the officers were thrown in with the regular soldiers (w/ no honors). After the war, Shaw’s parents visited the site where their son had died. When asked if they wished to have his body exhumed, so they could take it home to Boston for burial, they declined. “We would not have his body removed from where it lies, surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers,” explained his father, Francis George Shaw. “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. What a bodyguard he has!”
Article by historian (a consultant on the film):
Fathom Events: Glory